Foreignish: Interview with Yaldaz Sadakova

Column: De Otra Parte

Anonymous, American, 19th century, "The International: September," lithograph, ca. 1896, purchase, Leonard A. Lauder Gift, 2002, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

YALDAZ SADAKOVA is a writer and journalist in Toronto. She’s the creator of Foreignish.net, where she publishes memoir stories about the emotional side of immigration. Sadakova moved to Toronto in 2013. Before that, she lived in Brussels, Sofia, and New York. Photography and mindfulness are her other passions.

During the interview, Sadakova said something that stuck with me.

“Seeing yourself in literature is so powerful and affirming, but it rarely happens to me as a reader. The mainstream publishing industry still thinks that the most profitable books are books about characters of Western descent, with names like John and Betty, battling first-world problems.”

As an introverted, Colombian-born U.S. American who has lived in five countries on three continents, and as an immigrant who grew up wanting to be a writer, it was refreshing to stumble upon Sadakova’s work. My time as an immigrant has been spent seeing the majority of Latinos on TV, movies, and books portrayed as criminals. Though Sadakova is not Latina, I see myself in her immigrant story—an emotional narrative often neglected or chosen to not be told for whatever reason by traditional media gatekeepers.

Though immigrants have different stories and come from diverse backgrounds, we are all related by the experience of taking up residence in a foreign land. Every Sadakova long-form memoir I have read made me feel like she was in my own head—as if she was either a part of me or somehow knew me. Though we have never met in person, I now consider her a member of my own kin.

Sadakova is the kind of complex character I grew up wanting to see on the screen and in literature; yet, she’s a real person. It is this person I want to introduce: the creator of my favorite blog about the psychology of the immigrant experience, and a human, all too human.

Yaldaz Sadakova

Julián Esteban Torres López: Imagine you are a character in a story you are writing. How might you introduce yourself?

Yaldaz Sadakova: I’m an introvert, idealist, and an immigrant. When I was young, I wanted to be a psychologist. Then, when I was 16, I decided that I want to be a writer and a journalist.

JETL:     Can you tell us a bit about your “day job” as a writer and editor focusing on institutional investing, business, and HR trends? Given your interest in long-form memoir, how did you stumble upon this other writing world?

YS:     Business writing is no longer my day job. Two years ago, I quit my full-time magazine job where I did write and edit about these topics.

I quit not only because I wanted more flexibility in my life, but also because finance is not what I’m deeply passionate about.

After I resigned, I did a little bit of business writing, but then I made the decision to stop and focus on Foreignish and my immigration memoir writing.

Business and finance is an area I literally stumbled into because the beginning of my journalism career coincided with the start of the 2008 crisis. It’s not a beat I would have naturally picked.

Still, writing about these issues has enriched me. It’s an intellectual kind of enrichment, not the emotional enrichment I get from writing about topics like immigration.

Also, learning about investing specifically has helped me understand the importance of knowing how to grow your money—something us creatives usually don’t pay attention to or at least there’s this stereotype about us.

Yet, it’s something we could benefit from, given that we often need financial freedom to do work that doesn’t pay.

I have not become an investor myself, but it’s something I’m thinking about for the future. At least now I’m conscious that if you’re looking to grow your money, simply keeping it in the bank in a savings account will not get you there.

JETL:     What is Foreignish?

YS:     Foreignish is my personal blog where I publish long-form memoir stories that are specifically about the emotional and psychological aspects of immigration. So experiences like feeling invisible and unimportant because people constantly mispronounce my name, feeling otherized because I’m constantly asked where I’m from, seeing immigration bureaucracy crush my career dreams, feeling isolated because I’m the foreigner who on the surface looks completely integrated but on a deeper level doesn’t fit in, feeling ashamed of forgetting my first language and seeing my second language atrophy.

JETL:     Why did you create Foreignish?

YS:     I created Foreignish because I wanted to make sense of my own experiences as an immigrant. I always have this need to grasp the deeper meaning of things. But I’m the kind of person who can’t analyze and process things fully unless I write about them.

I also created Foreignish because outside of fiction, I haven’t been able to find in-depth prose that deals with the psychological aspects of immigration—and I’ve been so, so hungry for that kind of writing. Personal essays about that do pop up, but they’re usually shorter, and they usually lack the complexity and nuance that I crave as a reader.

JETL:     How do you define ‘immigrant’?

YS:     Someone who lives in permanent ambiguity, in an in-between space. Someone who’s constantly code-switching, literally and metaphorically. Code-switching, by the way, is the act of switching between different languages when you talk.

JETL:     What kinds of stories can readers find on Foreignish?

YS:     On Foreignish, readers can find evergreen, long-form memoir stories about immigration. I’m really adamant about the evergreen part and the long-form part.

The evergreen part is my rebellion against the conventions of journalism. In journalism, everything has to be newsworthy and time-sensitive, but the downside is that something newsworthy has a very short shelf life, even if you spent a long time writing it. I want to produce work that can stand the test of time.

The long-form part has to do with the fact that I’m very tired of reading quick, little stories on the internet which take my time but give me little in return. These days, when I read on the internet, I focus mainly on long-form stories. So, writing long-form is my way of creating the things I want to see more of.

JETL:     Where would you like to see Foreignish be 5 years from today?

YS:     I don’t know about 5 years because I’ve learned that this kind of planning doesn’t work for me. Unpredictable things happen all the time.

However, my long-term dream for Foreignish is to see it become the best place online for in-depth, relatable memoir stories that deal specifically with the emotional aspects of immigration.

My other big dream is to help plant these issues—about the emotional impact of immigration— more firmly in the mainstream discourse. I’ve had some Foreignish readers who are not immigrants and not minorities read my stories and tell me, “I had no idea that these circumstances made you feel this way, that this is what you’ve been through.” And I think, of course not, because where you are, in the majority, nobody talks about these things in detail, even though all immigrants experience them.

JETL:     Are you writing on any specific topics right now?

YS:     Yes! I just finished a 9,000-word story about my experience with immigration bureaucracy in Brussels, where I used to live. But as always, my focus is not on policies, but rather on psychology—what does it do to you when you’re constantly at the mercy of rigid immigration rules; what does it do to you when you realize you can’t dream that big because your shitty-country passport places limitations on you.

If you have international career dreams, if you want to participate in the global labor market, the kind of passport you hold is very important. If you have a passport from a place like America or Western Europe, the world can indeed be your oyster. You can be a backpacker. You can be the expat being stationed at foreign posts. If you have a shitty passport, the message to you is, sorry, life is not fair, shrink your dreams. This inequity drives me crazy.

JETL:     Does Foreignish accept submissions for publication consideration? If so, what’s the criteria and submission process?

YS:     As of now, no, because I can’t afford to pay writers. I don’t make any money from Foreignish. In fact, it costs me money to run it—in the form of hosting fees and many, many hours of unpaid writing.

I just published a long by a friend of mine (Claudia Ciobanu) but that’s an exception. It’s only because my friend was generous enough to let me publish it for free. She’d already written the piece and I’d read the manuscript before I even created Foreignish.

I fell in love with her manuscript because it was evergreen, beautifully written and relatable. It addressed some of the biggest existential issues around immigration and identity in a way that really spoke to me—things like why we’re conditioned to associate belonging with nationality, how moving abroad gives you the freedom to reinvent yourself and be anonymous.

JETL:     Writing memoirs is a very personal, intimate experience. Your pieces tackle many internal struggles regarding identity, belonging, and otherness. What do you find is the most difficult thing about writing memoirs than other kinds of writing you’ve published?

YS:     The thing I find most difficult about writing memoir is that it requires courage in a way journalism writing does not. Memoir requires you to reveal publicly some kind of vulnerability, some not so palatable aspect of yourself and your life. It’s kind of like being naked in public. But if you don’t reveal that stuff, then your work will lack depth. You won’t be able to establish a deep emotional connection with the reader.

JETL:     What’s your favorite piece you’ve written for Foreignish, and why is it your favorite?

YS:     All of them are my favorite. All of them are about things I cannot not write about. But there’s one that’s particularly special to me because I almost didn’t publish it. I almost chickened out.

It’s called “Having a Tricky Visa Situation Makes You Vulnerable at Work. That’s What Happened to Me.”

It’s about my first journalism job at a newspaper in Queens—about how I was bullied on that job and how I allowed that bullying to happen because of my precarious immigration status. At first, I was reluctant to reveal publicly that I’d been bullied by my boss—who has since died—because we have this unspoken rule that you’re not supposed to say anything bad about a previous boss.

But this is an awful rule because it assumes that if you’re publicly criticizing your boss, you’re the bad guy, the one with bad manners. But maybe there’s a legitimate reason for criticizing that person. Why do we assume that the employer is always right and the employee always wrong?

It’s also an awful rule because it encourages silence and perpetuates abuse. Workplace bullying due to immigration status is a reality that many immigrants experience, immigrants who are both highly-skilled and low-skilled.

So in the end, I decided to put it out there, to say, look this is how being a foreigner makes you super vulnerable at work, how it amplifies the power imbalance that already exists under normal circumstances. And if a potential editor or employer reads it and decides not to hire me because I publicly criticized my previous dead boss, then this is not somebody I want to work for anyway.

And I should add that with this piece I tried very hard to depict my boss as more than just a bully. I tried to show him as the more complex character I know he was. This is where sticking to long-form helped me. It’s impossible to add a layer of detail and complexity if all you have is 1,000 words.

JETL:     What’s your writing process like?

YS:     With memoir stories, I write my first drafts longhand, and I include everything. Even if something sounds stupid, petty, whiny, embarrassing or unrelated, I’ll include it.

I love writing longhand for first drafts because that way I can’t self-edit, and it becomes easier for me to tap into memories or feelings my conscious brain may not like to talk about. It’s like automatic writing.

Then I transcribe my first drafts onto Word. At this point, I usually discard about 30 percent of my first draft and add some new things. So that’s draft number 2.

That’s the hardest part. With draft number 2, I have a long, messy Word document. At this point my main concern is structure. Will I follow linear chronology? Will I start the story in the middle or at the end and then go back? I spend a lot of time on that.

When I’m finally satisfied with the structure, I flesh out the individual parts. That usually leads to more structural changes.

When I’m happy with the new structure, I add the details—descriptions of people and surroundings; descriptions of how I felt and what I thought.

When the piece is done, I set it aside for at least a few months, and then I revise. This is the point where I focus on language and then copy editing. Then I publish.

I need this space between first version and final editing because I don’t have an editor with Foreignish. This allows me to look at the piece in a more impersonal way.

JETL:     What advice would you give writers who either want to get better at writing memoirs, or those who want to write their first memoir?

YS:     You have to be willing to reveal your vulnerability; otherwise, you’re writing a cover letter. There’s this quote about memoir writing from Ayelet Waldman that has become my mantra: “If you’re not uncomfortable and scared while you’re writing, you’re not writing close enough to the bone.”

Dani Shapiro has similar advice, which is, write from the kishkas. Kishkas is a Yiddish word which means guts, intestines. So, unlike other types of cerebral writing, memoir writing has to come deep from your guts, from your kishkas. It has to be covered with blood, sweat, and other bodily fluids. It has to be about things that drive you crazy, make you sick and just won’t leave you alone.

I’ve discovered that in many cases when a personal essay or memoir doesn’t work for me, it’s because the writer doesn’t get really personal and deep. They’re just recounting events and facts. They’re writing from a safe distance. And they might be trying to make up for this lack of emotional depth by being snarky or witty. But snark or wit can’t really move a reader.

To me, the goal of good memoir is not to inform. It is to take you on a journey, to make you feel something.

And one more thing: because good memoir tackles the suppressed stuff we’d rather not talk about, I’d say, practice regularly mindfulness and creativity. For memoir, you need to be able to freely access the more hidden parts of your brain and heart. You won’t get there with logic and bullet points. Things that have helped me include journaling, drawing, and photography. Also, doing Vipassana meditation—both at home and at silent retreats.

It’s different for everyone, but you have to be able to quiet the logical part of your brain. You need to have a degree of self-awareness.

Yaldaz Sadakova

JETL:     What advice would you give immigrant writers?

YS:     Embrace, absolutely embrace, your otherness! Us immigrants are so used to being on the margins, so used to being ignored and invisible, so used to fighting for things that others may take for granted. That’s where I am, on the margins and invisible, and it used to make me so angry. Actually, it still makes me angry at times.

But when you’re on the fringes, when you have to struggle to obtain simple stuff, you experience things you would not have experienced otherwise. That’s your gold mine as an immigrant writer. Those are your story ideas.

Also—and this is advice that I need to remember myself because I have a tendency to feel righteous, and because there are people who have endured many more injustices than I have—don’t engage in a victimhood arms race with other immigrant and minority writers.

Understand that the struggles of different minority groups are related, and we should try to help each other instead of trying to prove that we have it worse than other minority groups.

Creating art as an immigrant shouldn’t be about winning the abuse and discrimination competition. So, tell your stories, and tell them bravely, but don’t worry about whether they’re woundy enough. If you write with candor, you will touch people.

JETL:     What else makes you angry?

YS:     Social injustice. For example, asylum seekers getting locked up in detention centers because they’ve crossed a border without the right papers. Crossing a border—especially if you’re feeling violence or poverty—should never be a crime. Robbery is a crime. Rape is a crime. Murder is a crime. Running for your life, trying to improve your life without harming anybody, should never ever be a crime.

JETL:     What are you reading right now?

YS:     Xhenet Aliu’s novel Brass. I’m loving it! Aliu is a very talented writer, and the Eastern European in me felt very much at home with her cast of mostly Albanian characters. It’s a brilliant book about identity, immigration, class, poverty, being a single mom, growing up fatherless.

JETL:     What ideas have you been thinking about lately?

YS:     One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is soulful use of social media.

I’ve been thinking about how to reconcile my need for mental silence and digital detox with the need to be on social media because of Foreignish. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t go on Facebook or Twitter.

My instinct these days is to turn off that chatter and just write.

But I have to be on social media to share my work, and it’s time-consuming. Time on social media is time away from my writing. Not only is it time-consuming, it also takes up so much of my mental bandwidth.

The other thing is that when I share stuff on social media related to Foreignish, I don’t want it to be some generic memes or sleazy, markety stuff. I want it to be stuff that people actually want to see.

So I’m trying to figure out how to post things people want to see and that I enjoy writing while also not spending too much time away from my actual writing.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just overthinking!

JETL:     Is the internet changing the way you think?

YS:     Yes, it’s eating my brain! I mean social media in particular. That stuff is just so, so addictive. I hate that. I hate that Twitter and Facebook have this control over me.

I also hate the fact that when I’m on social media, I start to compare my own life, with all of its messiness, to the positive highlights of everyone else. And even though I know that these status updates are nothing but very selective highlights, subconsciously it does affect me.

So I limit my use.

Last year I read this book called Virtually You by a psychiatrist who treats internet-related disorders and it truly scared me. It talks about all the ways the internet messes with our brains: things like making us more narcissistic and more reckless.

Of course, that’s not a surprise, but it’s interesting to me how many people out there deny that they exhibit these behaviors when, in fact, they do.

JETL:     What do you believe but can’t prove?

YS:     The existence of kundalini energy.

Not because I’ve felt it in my own body. Maybe one day I will; maybe one day I’ll have my own kundalini awakening!

I believe in it because I’m fascinated by the concept that we have this dormant, super powerful energy in us, and when it’s awakened—whether accidentally by trauma or purposely through yoga and meditation—it can lead to incredible transformations.

JETL:     Do you ever envision what your life would have looked like if you never moved from Bulgaria to another country? If so, what do you imagine that life would have been like?

YS:     I actually don’t envision that. I’ve always known that I’d leave Bulgaria. I always had this intuitive feeling that I’d be somewhere else. Even as a kid I felt that.

JETL:     What stressed you out the most being an immigrant attending an Ivy League university, and why?

YS:     The inability to belong, this feeling of being excluded from everything.

Not because I was a foreigner, but because I was very poor, and I was desperately trying to hide it, without success.

Actually, my time at Columbia was probably the time when I’ve felt most excluded in my life.

The thing with poverty is that not only does it deprive you of basic material things, but also of opportunities and connections. Because when you’re poor, there are many unspoken rich-people rules you’re not aware of.

So you can be literally surrounded by interesting opportunities and people, the way I was, and still be unable to connect with anyone.

They kept telling us at school, “you need to network,” but I had no idea what that meant. My classmates did—and they ended up forming relationships with each other and with professors, and my guess is that for at least some of them, these relationships have helped them in their careers.

But I didn’t know how to network because until then I had never heard about this networking concept. Because, of course, when you’re poor, networking is not top of mind for you. Your basic survival takes up all your energy and mental bandwidth.

JETL:     Do you have a writer ancestor (related or not related)? Someone whose writing you relate to/with?

YS:     Somerset Maugham—sadly not related to me. His writing speaks to me deeply, and I’ve been in love with his work since my teenage years. He is the only writer from my teenager years that I still love. I’ve reread three of his books so many times: Cakes and Ale, The Razor’s Edge, and Moon and Sixpence.

Maugham himself was a man of several languages, cultures and worlds—a wanderluster. He created characters who leave behind their safe conventional lives to pursue their risky art and to look for something much deeper than social status and material stuff. These characters do that by leaving home and going to foreign places.

For example, in The Razor’s Edge, which takes place just after World War I, the main character abandons a life of wealth so he can travel the world and find meaning. That’s how he discovers India and meditation. Think about it: Maugham wrote about leaving the rat race to pursue a mindful life much earlier than his Western counterparts, way before it became cool to talk about yoga and meditation.

JETL:     Who are your influences?

YS:     There are so many!

In terms of fiction writers, two people whose work I absolutely adore are Rawi Hage and Lara Vapnyar. Both of them are brilliant contemporary writers. Rawi Hage is a Lebanese-Canadian writer. Lara Vapnyar is a Russian-American writer.

Both of them have created characters that I, as an immigrant woman, can see myself in.

Seeing yourself represented in literature is so powerful and affirming, but it rarely happens to me as a reader. The mainstream publishing industry still thinks that the most profitable books are books about characters of Western descent, with names like John and Betty, battling first-world problems.

I also admire Lara Vapnyar and Rawi Hage for writing so beautifully in English, a language they speak with a foreign accent because it’s not their first language. I write in English, too, and it’s not my first language.

In terms of non-fiction, I should mention Seth Godin.

I’ve been deeply influenced by his idea that you need to create niche art and target a very specific audience—or what he calls the smallest viable audience—instead of creating something generic so you can appeal to the least common denominator.

I also love, love his idea about emotional labor. He says that if you’re a creator, your job is to do emotional labor, to put your heart in what you make, because this is the way to deeply connect with your audience and to be unique in their eyes.

Oh, and as the perpetual underdog, I love Godin’s idea about picking yourself. His idea is that there’s no need to wait for an editor, agent, etc. to pick you before you start doing the creative work you want to do. You can pick yourself, make your art and self-publish it. No need to rely on gatekeepers.

How liberating is that? That you need to put your energy in doing the work only you can do instead of wasting your time trying to get the attention of some gatekeeper who may or may not understand what you’re trying to do.

JETL:     What do you wish you knew when you were 20 that you know now?

YS:     That I don’t have to suppress who I am. That I don’t have to worry too much about hurting people’s feelings or offending them. I was way too agreeable back then, way too focused on what people wanted to hear, rather than on what I really wanted to say. Suppressing yourself means giving up your power: that’s how I see it now.

JETL:     You consider yourself an introvert. Do you ever wish you were more extroverted? If so, why? If not, why not?

YS:     Not anymore. But, unfortunately, I used to. Until recently I did wish that I was more of an extrovert at heart. Which is why I would always force myself to act outgoing and engage in all kinds of excruciating small talk and attend all kinds of events I never wanted to attend.

I would do that in social settings, but even more so in work settings. We talk so much about how workplaces are becoming more tolerant, but, make no mistake, they’re still extrovert-friendly places. We say we respect introversion, but then we turn around and expect introverted employees to act like extroverts. And if they have difficulty doing so, we dub them weird, unassertive or difficult to work with.

What would happen if we did the opposite in the workplace, if we started requiring extroverts to act more introverted? I’ll tell you what: there will be a lot less talking and a lot more actual working. I bet productivity would skyrocket—especially when it comes to those big, complex projects that require intense focus.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to appreciate my introversion. In my case, the reason why I enjoy writing, why I have the discipline to work independently, is my introversion. My introversion is also what gives me the intellectual stamina to constantly seek the deeper meaning behind things and to enjoy working with complex ideas. And introversion is what makes me a good listener.

This is not to say that an extrovert cannot have intellectual depth or good listening skills or good writing skills or the discipline to work alone. It’s just that in my particular case, these skills come from introversion.

JETL:     As an introverted foreigner, has it been difficult for you to make friends?

YS:     Yes, definitely. As an introvert, solitude is my only way of truly relaxing and being off. Most of the activities I enjoy are solo activities—reading, walking, running.

But that doesn’t make it easy to meet new people. And when I do meet new people, there has to be more than circumstance to bind me to them. Like, I won’t have coffee with someone simply because they live on my block or they work two cubicles down from me. We need to have something meaningful in common.

I wrote about this recently because I think it’s one aspect of immigrant life—or even adult life in general—that doesn’t get much coverage.

When you move abroad, they always advise you to socialize and meet new people. That’s wonderful if you’re an extrovert. But what if you’re an introvert who uses up most of their social quota at their job? Then, outside of work, the last thing you want to do is socialize more.

There’s also this stigma around lacking friends because people usually think you must be a loser. That was my other reason for writing about it. I wanted to say, “look, that’s me, but I’m not a loser, so let’s talk about why an adult living in the busy West can end up like this.”

And I should mention that by friends I don’t mean acquaintances that you only share superficial interactions with. I mean actual, close friends.

JETL:     Can you tell us a bit about the feeling of shame for losing your mother tongue?

 YS:     I carried the feeling of shame until very recently. Until I wrote about it.

Before I started writing about how I forgot Turkish, I thought I was some kind of freak. Because who on earth would forget their mother tongue, right?

But I did a bunch of research and I discovered that actually, forgetting your mother tongue is not uncommon. Especially for people like me, people for whom their mother tongue has always felt like a foreign language because it’s a so-called heritage language. Say you’re born in America to Syrian parents and Arabic is your mother tongue. Because you’re not in Syria, Arabic is a heritage language for you.

I was born and raised in Bulgaria, so for me Turkish was a heritage language. And because it was a minority language—and because at one point Turkish was banned in Bulgaria for political reasons I shouldn’t get into here or I’ll need a lot of space—I never got the chance to learn it properly.

So when I left Bulgaria and stopped using it, I forgot it. And I thought it was my fault.

Until I started writing about it, I never realized, wait, there were these crazy circumstances.

Now it makes complete sense that I’ve forgotten Turkish. Because I wrote about it, I’ve finally made peace with the experience. I no longer feel ashamed.

And once I started writing and researching the issue, I realized that I also want to publish this piece because there are others like me out there. People who think they’re freaks when they’re anything but.

JETL:     Why do you expose yourself in the name of literature?

YS:     For many reasons. One is that I want to be seen.

Over the years, I felt pretty invisible. Invisible in the sense that there was a huge part of me that I never got to express, so most people had no idea who I actually was.

Some of it has to do with my introversion. As an introvert, my inclination is to listen and ask questions rather than talk. Actually, I often feel like a counselor. That’s great and I love listening to people’s thoughts and feelings. It’s just that I usually walk away knowing more about others than they know about me.

The other part of it is that over the years, I would try really hard to fit in because I always felt like a misfit. Of course, trying to erase who you are in order to gain acceptance is a recipe for living an inauthentic, suppressed life.

Memoir writing is my attempt to address all of that.

Yaldaz Sadakova

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Founder, Editor-in-Chief

Julián Esteban Torres López is a Colombian-born journalist, researcher, writer, and editor. Before founding The Nasionahe ran several cultural and arts organizations, edited journals and books, was a social justice and public history researcher, wrote a column for Colombia Reports, taught university courses, and managed a history museum. He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee and 1st place winner of the Rudy Dusek Essay Prize in Philosophy of Art. His book Marx’s Humanism and Its Limits was BookAuthority’s Best New Socialism Book of 2018. His micro-poetry collection Ninety-Two Surgically Enhanced Mannequins is not as serious in tone as his forthcoming book Reporting on Colombia: Essays on Colombia’s History, Culture, Peoples, and Armed Conflict.

Twitter: je_torres_lopez

jetorreslopez.com


Featured image: Anonymous, American, 19th century, “The International: September,” lithograph, ca. 1896, purchase, Leonard A. Lauder Gift, 2002, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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